What Indigenous cosmovisions teach us about climate apathy

The world is burning, and humanity is asleep. Why won’t people just wake up??!!

It’s planting season. Last Tuesday, along with a friendly bunch of fellow farm volunteers, I spent the afternoon introducing hundreds of young tomato plants to their new poly-tunnel home. The farm’s head grower had wanted to plant them the previous week, but the nights were still too cold. Tomato plants, like all crops, must be kept within a critical range of temperatures, above or below which they could fail.

While farming in the UK certainly has its challenges, we’re still insulated from the most severe weather extremes experienced in other parts of the world. Take the hellish spring heatwave in India and Pakistan, for example, where April temperatures hit a staggering 49°C. The impact on crops has been devastating, with yields falling by 50% in the worst hit areas. For some, the end of the world is already here.

This is the grim reality of climate change – the high-carbon lifestyles of us Global Northerners inflicting mass suffering on the Global South. But it gets worse. A month ago, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released their latest report. Their assessment couldn’t have been clearer: we must act now or face climate catastrophe. The UK government responded by announcing plans to drill for more oil, a policy cheered on by the COP26 president, Alok Sharma.

Neither the latest IPCC code red warning, the South-East Asian heatwave, nor the literal pouring of petrol on an already out of control blaze by characteristically reckless Tory politicians – two slaps in the face and a kick in the crotch – registered with the dormant British public. We carry on as normal, as if these reports relate to a totally different planet altogether.

Dormant citizens don’t hold climate-wrecking politicians accountable, nor do they change their climate-wrecking lifestyles. If we’re to avoid extinction, both must change. That’s why understanding climate apathy in advanced industrialised economies is so crucial. Given what’s at stake, it’s arguably one of the most important questions ever posed in human history. And yet, as I’ve written previously, the Western science paradigm gives us false answers, claiming that humans are innately predisposed to ignore climate change.

The consequences of this bogus narrative are dire. With climate apathy wired in the brain, we can only conclude that human nature is irrevocably flawed, leaving us permanently comatose to the perils of climate breakdown. Almost by design, this pessimism of the human condition inspires optimism in capitalism and technology. “Trust progress!”, “Trust technology!”, “Trust the profit motive!”, scream the tech masters of the Universe. If all else fails, they tell us, we can black out the sun[1].

Belief that the economic system which has pushed us to the brink of mass extinction will eventually save us is motivated reasoning so perverse that it would make ISIS blush. But this is exactly where we are. The Prophets of profit are the most fundamentalist psychos on the planet.

Moving beyond this fatalistic, insular, and superficial account of climate apathy is crucial. Totally absent is an appreciation of the structural social, economic, and cultural factors that shape people’s climate apathy in the first place. To get to the root of the issue, we must dig deeper. Focusing on why we won’t wake up isn’t enough, we need to ask the more basic question what kind of people are we – that is, what kind of human does late-capitalist society produce? Without this understanding, how do we even know what the baseline expectation should be for our ecological and environmental concern?

In my previous post, I laid out how cultural blindness or ‘ethnocentrism’, a by-product of socialisation processes, prevents us from seeing the strangeness of our society. It’s why the Enlightenment was forced to wait until Europeans encountered Native Americans, who kindly pointed out to them the absurdity of their cherished institutions and beliefs, such as the divine right of Kings. Likewise, to move beyond the superficial and bland auto-introspection of the late-capitalist condition (we’re individualistic, selfish, consumerist, short-sighted etc. etc.), we must, once again, turn to Indigenous writers and activists for inspiration.

The poetic words of Guarini activist Eunice Kerexu, shared during a session at COP26, are good starting point.

“We invite you to join the struggle to reforest the Amazon, and to reforest our hearts and minds, because more than the forest, what has been deforested has been us as human beings.”

The observation that industrialised society has felled core pillars of our humanity is a common thread in Indigenous thought. Perhaps, then, we should be focusing less on what we are and more on what we are not.

One thing we’re certainly not, the Indigenous writer Ailton Krenak reminds us, are the kind of people who talk to rocks. Nor do we contemplate the mood of mountains, sing to the forest, appreciate the sacredness of a river or, indeed, commune inter-subjectively with any other-than-human natural entity. In his book ‘Ideas to Postpone the End of the World’, he contrasts his connection to the natural world with that of industrialised peoples.

“My communion with what we call nature is an experience long scoffed at by city folk. Rather than see any value in it, they poke fun at it: “He talks to trees, he’s a tree-hugger; he talks to rivers, he contemplates the mountains.” But that’s my experience of life. I don’t see anything out there that is not nature. Everything is nature. The cosmos is nature. Everything I can think of is nature.”

In a recent webinar run by the Indigenous rights group Cultural Survival, Archana Soreng, an environmental activist from the Kharia Tribe in India, expanded on this sentiment:

“The entire worldview of Indigenous people and local communities, for us nature is a source of identity, culture, tradition and language. We believe that we are not a mere part of nature, but that we are nature. Nature has been a source of our livelihood, a source of our protection, a source of our centre. We are in a relationship where we respect her, and we take care of her. The world has seen land, forest, and nature as commercial commodities, unlike Indigenous communities. For us, talking care of nature is our way of living. Often Indigenous people are asked “What do you do to protect nature? What’s the traditional knowledge and practices?” but for me, it’s not what we do, but who we are.”   

The above statements all illustrate the profound interdependence that Indigenous and local communities feel for nature and that this is experienced on a deep psychological level. It is a function of both their proximity to natural processes and their direct dependence on nature for survival. From birth, they are socialised into a cosmovision, or worldview, which reinforces these connections, providing them with the traditional knowledge, beliefs, and ritual practices to live in commune with the natural world around them.

These cosmovisions promote an ‘ecological realism’[2] – an accurate ecological representation of humans as just one element of a natural living system comprised of innumerable others, whose harmonious balance must be preserved so that all lifeforms can benefit from its abundance. Culturally, this ecological relationality is often expressed by extending kinship relations beyond humans to ‘other-than-human’ beings.

The cosmic importance of ecological balance for Indigenous peoples means that they’re extremely sensitive to climatic disturbances. More than three decades ago, the Kogi, an Amerindian tribe located in Colombia’s Sierra Nevada, abandoned 500 years of isolation to broadcast this urgent message to the world:

“We look after nature. We Mamas [Kogi spiritual leaders] see that you are killing it by what you do. We can no longer repair the world – you must. You are uprooting the Earth and we are divining how to teach you to stop.”

In more recent years, Indigenous peoples and local communities across the globe have been visible as the most vocal and vociferous campaigners against planetary destruction and climate change. Thousands of land and water defenders have been murdered on the frontlines.

I hope it’s now abundantly clear that climate apathy doesn’t reside in the brain, but in the environment and the culture emerging from it. Western science gets things so wrong because it fails to grant personhood to people living beyond industrialised society. If you’re only studying subjects in one environment, you will only get one answer. We can imagine a different science, one that only studies Indigenous peoples, concluding that humans are wired to passionately care about climate change.

‘Environmentalism’ is an odd term for the advocacy of the natural world as the environments humans navigate take many forms, most of which are not natural in any meaningful sense. The Amazon and Las Vegas are both environments, but the influence each exerts on their populations will obviously vary immensely – as will the environmentalism that each inspires. It follows that those living in the industrialised world can care for their environment with a similar reverence as Indigenous and local communities – it’s just that their conception of ‘the environment’ is one that’s totally detached from nature.

Ask any local council candidate about the issues raised on the doorstep in the latest round of elections and they’ll tell you about the rage induced by potholes, fly-tipping, and “bins” – all factors of environmental imperfection. And think about the immense amount of time and money invested in our most treasured environment – our homes – doing DIY, extensions, refurbishments, home décor, pruning and landscaping gardens. This is also environmentalism, but of the kind in service of artificiality.

My flat overlooks a primary school playground. The scene of boisterous children playing between classes is familiar to all. So familiar, perhaps, that it’s just taken for granted that this is what kids should be doing. Play is, after all, vitally important for a child’s social development. As someone interested in human behaviour, the social dynamics of these developing young people have been fascinating (and often hilarious) to observe.

But lately, I’ve begun to appreciate this scene’s profound strangeness. Absolutely everything in this play environment is artificial. The two surfaces are asphalt and Astroturf. The objects the kids are playing with – balls, hoops, and tyres (!) etc. – are all plastic or rubber. The handful of trees lining the playground’s periphery receive no attention. While there are a few schools that have a greater access to natural surroundings, what I’ve described is very much the norm across the country.

Play is one of the most important motors of a child’s socialisation and the school playground is arguably where they play most (and if they’re not at school they’re in parks playing on slides or at home playing with toys). If children are socialised in entirely artificial environments, interacting with wholly artificial objects, then we shouldn’t be at all surprised that as adults they are utterly detached from natural processes and disinterested in ecological matters like climate change. A recent encounter I had through my work in social research sums this up perfectly. Whilst interviewing a woman on the doorstep, a fly flew into her house. In a genuinely panicked tone, she exclaimed “My daughter is scared of flies!”, before disappearing to deal with it (her daughter was a toddler).

So, to summarise my argument: it’s not that we’re “wired to ignore climate change”, it’s that socialisation in environments devoid of substantial natural connection wires us for artificiality, robbing us of the ecological realism that we see so clearly in the cosmovisions of Indigenous peoples and local communities. Of course, none of this should be in anyway surprising given that the globe’s dominant cosmovision, capitalism, operates on logic abstracted away from ecological reality – profit, shareholder value, commodification, private property, monetary policy, growth etc. – all ruthlessly reinforcing our separation from nature. Even our education system is geared towards the needs of the private sector – corporates sponsor and run some of our schools, ensuring the conveyor belt of docile workers and ravenous consumers never ends.

Given that we’re operating in a culture which actively disconnects us from the biosphere, the baseline expectation for general concern for ecological processes will naturally be very low, and mass climate apathy entirely unsurprising. In fact, we should probably be grateful that there’s any concern at all (although it doesn’t typically encompass the radical changes to our lifestyles needed to stave off extinction). While it’s important to remain positive, we mustn’t shy away from the immensity of the challenge in front of us. How we nurture ecological realism against the tidal wave of capitalist influence feels like an unsolvable conundrum. Fundamentally, it’s about finding ways of allowing Indigenous-inspired cosmovisions, like ‘buen vivir’, to take root. And it begins with how we educate and socialise our children.

Looking down from my window at this wasteland of concrete and faux-grass, strewn with tyres, I see great potential for nature connection – a pond, wildflower patches, a mini orchard, and raised beds for growing veg – as well as opportunities to play with nature – tree climbing, building and toy making using natural materials, and picking wildflowers. Importantly, the hegemony of competitive games must be displaced by play (and integrated teaching) which reinforces communality and ecological connection. Tackling climate apathy means first tackling mass ecological illiteracy. Ecology must be granted the same educational importance as English and Maths.

Somehow, we must find a way of awakening the masses to the bizarreness of this Willy Wonka-esque wonderland we call ‘modernity’, which has us hooked on endless artificial treats that we gorge with Creosotic excess. Divine kings are everywhere, hidden in plain sight. In a very real sense, we have become aliens on our own planet, occupying a virtual world disconnected from physical reality. To become Earthlings once more, we must turn to those cultures that never abandoned Mother Earth.


[1]Bill Gates is a proponent of so-called solar geoengineering, which involves spraying particles into the stratosphere to reflect the sun’s light back into space

[2] I probably need to find another term for what I mean here because ‘ecological realism’ is already used in philosophy with a different meaning. Can’t think of a better one for now, so I’m sticking with it!